I like it best when fiction takes me to new unfamiliar worlds and Jaimy Gordon’s novel set in and around a small-time racing track in West Virginia did just that. Taught me an awful lot about the background and pressures, despite the fact that I hadn’t got a clue what was going on in the first 50 pages or so, due to the dialect and slang. Once my “ear” was atuned, however, I fair *cough* raced through it.
Tommy Hansel has a plan. By entering his unknown horses in races for which they are overqualified, he hopes to bag himself a few winners and some easy money. However, life is rarely so simple and never so when the owner is as unstable as his horses. Plus there are gangsters who consider Indian Mound Downs racetrack to be their private money press. Fortunately Tommy has his girlfriend, Maggie, to keep her eye out for him, and the chief groom and trainer, Medicine Ed, but there are some hard lessons to be learned.
The novel follows the trajectory of Tommy and Maggie’s learning curve. How soon will they realise where they stand in the picking order? In which direction they’re headed? (Answer: down. Just look at the examples of Medicine Ed and Deucey, the gypsy woman who faces disaster whenever she overstretches herself by owning/part owning more than one horse.) When will Tommy and Maggie learn that this is a hard-nosed business with no room for sentimentality? That ruin and madness inevitably follow if they become emotionally attached to their animals.
It is to be hoped that they can pick up on the undercurrents of a fixed race in time to save their lives …
The novel is structured in 5 sections, each centring on the story of one horse and his human entourage. The Lord of Misrule, that harbinger of chaos, is mentioned throughout, finally making his appearance in the final section and the climactic race, the outcome of which is predetermined or is it?
Even if I still couldn’t translate all the dialect, and was sickened by the perverse nature of Tommy and Maggie’s sex life, I kept reading. Gordon, who knows her stuff, having once worked for three years in the racing industry, paints a convincing, if unglamorous portrait of life on the racetrack. As the pages turned, my reading speed progressed from trot to canter until I was positively gallopping along. Normally when confronted with such bleak seediness, I stop, but the cast of colourful characters and, in places, the unexpected black humour, particularly in the final furlong of that final race, ensured that against the Orange longlistees I’ve read to date, Lord of Misrule wins not by a nose, but by some distance.